Seventh Circuit Expands Title VII Coverage to Include Sexual Orientation Claims

Published by Meg Vergeront on

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. 2017), that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In doing so, it overruled its own longstanding precedent and put itself in conflict with most other circuits.

The plaintiff in Hively was a former part-time professor at Ivy Tech Community College. She filed a suit under Title VII, claiming that Ivy Tech denied her application for full-time employment, and ultimately declined to renew her part-time contract, because she was openly gay. Title VII makes it unlawful for private sector and state and local government employers with at least 15 employees to discriminate on the basis of, among other things, a person’s sex. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). Title VII does not list sexual orientation as a protected classification.

At the time Hively filed her suit, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a majority of the federal appellate circuits were at odds as to whether Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination should be expended to reach sexual orientation discrimination. The EEOC took—and still takes—the position that Title VII should be read to include sexual orientation as a protected classification. At the time of the suit, however, 10 of the 12 federal appellate geographic circuits, including the Seventh Circuit, had ruled to the contrary. Relying on Seventh Circuit precedent, the district court granted Ivy Tech’s motion to dismiss Hively’s sexual orientation discrimination claim. Hively appealed.

A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit noted that the line between a gender non-conformity claim—a claim that is covered by Title VII—and a sexual orientation claim is hard to discern. Hively v. Ivy Tech Cmty. Coll., 830 F.3d 698 (7th Cir. 2016). Ultimately, however, the court followed precedent. It upheld the district court’s dismissal on the ground that Title VII does not apply to sexual orientation discrimination claims. Id. at 718.

The panel’s ruling, however, was not the final word. The Seventh Circuit elected to rehear the case en banc, meaning that all eleven judges on the court would rehear it. After consideration, the court rejected its prior rulings. Hively, 853 F.3d 339. Specifically, the court concluded that Hively’s claim was no different from successful gender non-conformity claims brought by women  who alleged discrimination resulted from their “failure to conform to the female stereotype (at least as understood in a place such as modern America, which views heterosexuality as the norm and other forms of sexuality as exceptional).” It explained that the line between a gender nonconformity claim and one based on sexual orientation “does not exist at all.” Thus, the court concluded that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination included discrimination claims based on sexual orientation. The court, however, did not determine the merits of Hively’s claim, but sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings consistent with its ruling.

Given the split among circuits, it is likely that Congress or the Supreme Court will step in to address the issue. Stay tuned.

If you have questions on this case or on other employment related matters, contact Meg Vergeront at (608) 256-0226.

Filed Under: Seventh Circuit, employment law

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